Dir. Michael Hurst
Wr. Michael Hurst
Starring Pumpkinhead, Lance Henriksen, etc.
So here we are at the last installment of the PUMPKINHEAD franchise to date, and my, what a ride it’s been. From the surprising respectability of the original to the predictable shittiness of PUMPKINHEAD 2: BLOOD WINGS to the surprising shittiness and respectability of PUMPKINHEAD 3: ASHES TO ASHES, it’s been an emotional roller coaster for that pruney demonic extractor of vengeance via the medium of whacking people with big monster hands that we’ve come to know as Pumpkinhead. He’s lost Lance Henriksen and regained him; gone from Stan-Winston-designed puppet to sub-Sega Saturn quality CGI to his current man-in-suit getup; gone from theatrical film to DTV to Sci-fi-channel special; had an identical son who starred in part 2; gone through no less than three old ladies who play the mountain witch, and in the process burned through untold dozens of generic white TV actors.* So many memories. So many vengeances.
In my last PUMPKINHEAD review, I noted its reliance on CGI which I said at the time “would look embarrassing on an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.” Well, someone in the production must have thought the same thing, because to direct a sequel they actually got the one guy who might have a more relevant opinion on that matter than I do: Michael Hurst, who played Kevin Sorbo’s sidekick Iolaus** on that show. Iolaus smartly eschews Part 3’s CGI overreaching, relying instead on the same redesigned man-in-suit Pumpkinhead that I kind of liked last time around (turns out the change was necessary because the original Pumpkinhead had rotted away in storage, so pour one on the curb for the OG Pumpkinman.) He also brings a mildly clever new dynamic to insert our man Pumpkin into, that of the titular blood feud. After the unexpectedly watchable Part 3, I had high hopes that this one (which wikipedia claims, “is considered to be the best of the three sequels and it was more well received”***) would finally deliver on the promise thats been fleetingly on display in the others. I was ready to bask in that old Pumpkinhead charm.
|Pumpkinhead, upon finding out he'd been cast in this movie.|
Unfortunately for Pumpkinheadophiles, (after 3 reviews, I’ve yet to come up with a suitable nickname for the big lunk. Pumpky? P-Head? Gourd-o?) what Iolaus doesn’t bring to the table is any amount of subtlety or artistry. He does have kind of a good central idea, however, which, in true Pumpkinhead fashion has one nicely ironic twist. The setup is this: somewhere in the black mountains hills of some undefined east-coast mountain range lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon (here given the unlikely name of Ricky McCoy). One day he and his woman were run off by another guy, who hit young Ricky in the eye (Ricky didn’t like that, nor did he like the fact that they go on to attempt to rape his younger sister) so he says, “I’m gonna git that boy.” So one day he walked out of town to book himself a room at the local witch’s room. Subsequently, Ricky did come equipped with a gun (in this case, a Pumpkinhead) to tear off the legs, etc, of his rivals. His rival it seemed, had broken his dreams, by stealing the girl of his fancy (as discussed previously). She had no nicknames, and everyone knew her as Jodie Hatfield. No mention of Gideon’s bible, though. Maybe in the deleted scenes.
So yeah, feuding families named McCoy and Hatfield. That’s the level of artistry we’re talking about here. I’m surprised they’re not named Romeo and Juliet. And I’ll be honest, I stretched the lyrics of that song a little to fit the plot. Actually Ricky’s rivals are not romantic rivals, but members of a rival family of which Jodie is also a part. The two families have bin’ blood feudin’ and a’ fightin’ since their grandparents had a falling out over the ownership of an automobile. But this whole thing quickly escalates from innocent drunken brawls into demonic vengeance when a couple of Hatfield brothers, irate that a McCoy is schtupping their sister, beat him up and accidentally murder his little sister in an otherwise harmless attempt to brutally rape her. So, against the advice of ghostly Lance Henriksen, Ricky summons Pumpkinhead to kill off the entire Hatfield family (except his girlfriend. Why he thinks she’s gonna be OK with this turn of events is a matter left unexplored). And the local sheriff (porn-tastically name “Dallas Pope”) --himself a survivor of an earlier unrelated Pumpkinhead incident-- knows that the only way to stop the slaughter is to kill Ricky.
The one advantage this film has over its predecessors is that the slaughter itself is somewhat more enjoyable. Iolaus knows that he’s not gonna be able to recapture the atmospheric timelessness of the original, nor the creepy spartan sleaze of part 3, but he does have one trick up his sleeve which has up til now been curiously absent from the Pumpkinhead bag of tricks: gore. Yes, in part 2 he rips that annoying kid’s spine out, and he graphically impales not one but two people in part 3. But gore has never really been a staple of the series. Iolaus hasn’t got the chops or the interest in cultivating any kind of real psychological horror, but he at least commits to giving us some suitably fun bloody deaths. The special effects are not the best, but if you’re looking for gimmicky kills this is probably the best the series has to offer. Particularly memorable is a group of the Hatfields who runs afoul of a series of bear traps. It’s not exactly subtle, but there’s a certain skill required in setting people up as assholes and then dispatching them in satisfying ways. As artless as the movie generally is, it may be the best at executing this simple dynamic.
|Pumpkinhead does not respect your personal space.|
It’s less capable of executing its one interesting twist, though. The twist is that halfway through the film (once all the most hateable Hatfields have been killed off) the two families actually reconcile, and suddenly killing them all seems a bit unnecessary. So the McCoys and Ricky’s gal are left in the unenviable position of having deciding whether or not they’re going to help kill off their boy to save the family they have so much negative history with. Cool idea, but the execution is just too sloppy to really take it anywhere interesting. Mostly it just results in a bunch of not-so-great actors sitting around a table stating the obvious over and over. But finally Pumpkinhead comes back and indiscriminately kills everyone, so it’s all good. It’s sort of an interesting extension of the general Pumpkinhead theme of vengeance, though, so I’ll give it credit for the idea, even if it doesn’t really go anywhere interesting.
Anyway, there’s not a lot of real tension or horror here. I still like the man-in-suit Pumpkinhead design pretty well, and he’s way more effective at killing yokels here than he’s been in the past, so he almost works as a credible physical threat even if he’s still this big slow lumbering lunk (actually, at the beginning we get to see a CGI version of him swinging through the trees like a monkey while chasing that old nemesis of hill people, punk kids on dirt bikes. So add that to the Pumpkinhead mythos.) Not really the stuff of nightmares, but as a indestructible dinosaur who roars a lot and sometimes bites people, it gets the job done. This would be a reasonably acceptable hook for a Sci-Fi Channel original movie called PUMPKINHEAD 4: BLOOD FEUD that you might halfway watch some painfully hungover Saturday afternoon**** when you were too lazy to change the channel. But for us lovers of the fine arts, you’re gonna have to throw us a little Lance Henriksen to make it worth our time to write up full reviews of your shit. Fortunately Iolaus is smart enough to realize this, and gives old Ed Harley a little more screen time and a slightly different perspective than last time.
|Portrait of a man thinking seriously about firing his agent.|
In part 3, Harley was a helpful but somewhat antagonistic figure, dressed all in black and possessing a kind of wicked black humor in keeping with that film’s tone. Here, he’s back in his white shirt and jeans from the original Pumpkinhead, and sporting a more sympathetic demeanor. He has literally nothing to do but provide unneeded exposition, but of course sells it with such class you quickly forget about everyone else and just listen to him. There’s a line where he mentions his dead son from part 1, and I swear to you he’s so good that I honestly felt a stirring of real human emotion. In the middle of this movie. It’s not quite as fun as his devilish turn in part 3, but he also gets a little more screen time here and it goes without saying that the only time the movie has even a hint of actual drama, it’s due to his hard work. He really seems to care about what happens to these inbred hicks, and even though you, a real human being watching this movie, could never share his interest --let alone concern-- you can at least sort of care in the sense that you want think to turn out ok for him.
I can’t lie, though, without Henricksen this would be pretty much unwatchable crap even by my standards. There’s a completely unacceptable ratio of yokels jawin’ about gingham and suchlike to scenes of Pumpkinhead killing them. It’s a nice concession to throw us some gore, but it’s not nearly imaginative or frequent enough to make it worth your time. I like a couple of the things Iolaus is trying to do, but he’s nowhere close to pulling it off. There’s absolutely nothing convincingly tragic, atmospheric, or scary about this iteration of the Pumpkinhead legend, and old Gourd-o just isn’t interesting enough on his own to sustain a creature feature that normal humans could watch and enjoy. And let me reiterate: this is the Sci-Fi Channel. He’s up against the likes of SHARKTOPUS and DINOCROC and CROCODILE 2: DEATH ROLL (which at least has the decency to star Martin Kove). Not exactly THE GODFATHER, but at least an honest, decent retardedly gimmicky concept. Pumpkinhead can’t compete against that. If this series is going any further (and obviously, it should), it’s gonna have to look inside itself and ask which is more horrifying: corrosive, toxic hatred in timeless hill country, or a big rubbery dinosaur that slaps people? Even with all its silly baggage, Pumpkinhead is conceptually interesting enough that it could legitmately have something to say about our cultural history of violent revenge against those who have “wronged” us -- all in the name of justice. Plus, there are still stars of HELLRAISER who haven’t yet tangled with the Pumpkinman. Those are two excellent reasons to try harder next time. Like Pumpkinhead himself (herself?) this series never seems to stay dead for long.
Lance Henricksen: YES
Bland And/or Irritating White Kids: YES
Satisfying Kills: YES
Horror Icon You Wouldn’t Expect They Could Get For This: NONE
Pumpkinhead Smacks People With His Big Stupid Hands: YES
Attempt at Appalachian Accents: YEP
At All Watchable: NOPE
*In fact, there’s reason to believe Pumpkinhead has gone through a gender change as well. Recall that Pumpkinhead regrows from the shrivelled corpse of the person who last raised him (this is confirmed in both the original and PUMPKINHEAD 3, and sort of confirmed in the possibly-not-canon BLOOD WINGS, which has the son of Pumpkinhead working for himself). And of course, we remember clearly that the last survivor of PUMPKINHEAD 3 was that brunette chick who was explicitly the one buried in Pumpkinhead island at the end. So although we don’t actually see Pumpkinhead’s resurrection this time around, we’re left to assume that he’s got a feminine side here, which probably explains his (her) much, much higher body count.
** So says wikipedia. IMBD claims they’re different people, but honestly that’s too good a story not to believe. He did direct a bunch of episodes of that show, so it’s not entirely ridiculous to imagine.
***Possibly more reason to take their claim that it was directed by Iolaus with a grain of salt
****Or while recording your debut album, which is where I first encountered it.